The Rise of Valls

The Rise of Valls

Ever since the 1980s, France’s Fifth Republic has experienced periods of "cohabitation," when legislative elections have forced the president to name the opposition leader as prime minister. This was the case with François Mitterand, obliged to "cohabitate" with his nemesis Jacques Chirac, just as the conservative Chirac subsequently cohabitated with the Socialist Lionel Jospin. By naming Manuel Valls as his new prime minister following his party’s disastrous performance in municipal elections earlier this month, President François Hollande offers a new riff on this practice: He must now cohabitate with a fellow Socialist who wants not only to replace him, but to replace the term "Socialist" with something else entirely.

In the second round of municipal elections last month, the ruling Socialists lost control of 151 cities — a pounding even greater than the one François Mitterrand’s Socialists absorbed in 1983. As more than one commentator observed, it was a veritable Battle of Berezina for the Socialist Party. Like Napoleon’s army, which suffered horrific losses but escaped Russian encirclement in 1812, the Socialists are reeling from the right’s massive assault on their local fiefs, but have managed to maintain control of national institutions.

That hold is terribly fragile. From the heights of the Elysée, Hollande took full measure of the electoral rout. During his presidential campaign, he had run under the slogan: "Change is now." Once he defeated the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, however, it became clear that "change" was little more than the passage of tired Socialist nostrums: boosting taxes and bolstering threatened industries. Through either hubris or desperation, the government raised taxes not only on the 1 percent — the notorious 75 percent marginal rate on millionaires that drove Gérard Depardieu into the arms of Vladimir Putin — but also ratcheted up the TVA, or sales tax, which punished the other 99 percent. Two years later, with the nation sagging even more deeply under the weight of rising unemployment, lagging productivity, and persistent deficits, "now" had finally arrived. With little more than two years left in his term, Hollande has no choice but to change — or "now" will mark his political end.

The first head to fall belonged to Hollande’s prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, whose chief virtue, moderation, was also his chief flaw. The former German professor was incapable of knocking heads together and forcing his cabinet to fall into line. His challenge was even greater because Hollande had failed to establish a clear line for him to follow, while his ministers came from wildly different ideological sensibilities, ranging from Green Party members and traditional social democrats at one end of the spectrum to liberals of the French free-market variety at the other.

Among the various candidates Hollande considered to replace Ayrault as prime minister, Manuel Valls was the only one who hadn’t voted for Mitterrand in 1981. This was not a question of politics, but of citizenship: Valls didn’t become a French citizen until 1982, when he was 20 years old. But it could have just as easily been for ideological reasons, since the Spanish-born Frenchman has long been to the right on the left. When he joined the Socialist Party in the early 1980s, he did so under the wing of Michel Rocard, who served as a prime minister under Mitterrand and pushed for a liberalization of France’s statist economic model.

Ambitious and telegenic, Valls moved rapidly up the party’s ranks, taking a seat in the National Assembly in 2001, as well as one in city hall for the Parisian suburb of Evry. (The so-called "accumulation of mandates," which allows politicians to serve simultaneously in different national, regional, and local offices, is a perennial subject of debate in France.) As the party’s director of communications, he gained national prominence, as well as the attention of Sarkozy, who in 2007 invited Valls to join his new government (although he never said publicly in what capacity). To the surprise — and perhaps disappointment — of a number of fellow Socialists, Valls refused the offer.

Like Sarkozy, who built his career on exploiting popular fears over immigration, crime, and national identity, Valls challenged many of the left’s sacred cows. In fact, shortly after becoming mayor of Evry, which boasts a significant Muslim community, Valls became embroiled in a controversy over cows and the sacred. When he learned that a local supermarket planned to specialize in halal meats, and remove all wine and pork products from its shelves, Valls exploded that it was "intolerable." Such a "sectarian" move, he declared, undermined the secular principles of the republic. (The store’s owner maintained that the sale of alcohol was undermining the social fabric of his neighborhood.)

Valls invoked the duties of republican citizenship again in 2007, when he criticized the abolition of the military draft by President Jacques Chirac a decade earlier. While Valls did not call for its resurrection, he argued — rightly, in the view of many — that the army served an important agent of social assimilation and integration. For this reason, he suggested that France should introduce a different kind of obligatory civil service for its youth, one that would "inspire a sense duty and belonging to the nation." The Socialist candidate for president, Ségolène Royal, made the proposal her own, along with the promise, should she become president, that every Frenchman and woman would learn the words of "La Marseillaise." 

Royal, who Valls supported, went on to lose in a landslide to Sarkozy. This suggested, of course, that many French disagreed with her views on republican duty. But it also made clear that many on the left, roiled by her proposals, worried about the kind of nationalist revival that Valls seemed to embody. Yet his greatest disturbance was yet to come: Not only did the nation mean everything, but the word "socialism" had come to mean nothing. The party, he announced during an interview in 2009, had to change its direction, methods, program and even its name — although to what, he did not say. While the conservatives gloated, the Socialists glared: The party’s leader, Martine Aubry, the architect of the 35-hour work week and leader of the traditionalist wing, invited Valls to quit a party in which he clearly felt so ill at ease.

Five years later, it is Valls who might as well extend that invitation to Aubry. She is now exiled to the city hall of Lille, while Valls seems poised to take control of the party whose name he can hardly bear to speak. This attests not just to his political skill, but also to the accuracy of his assessment of the Socialist Party’s future. In an op-ed he published, tellingly, in the Financial Times, Valls declared that the Socialists had to change or die. Under Hollande, they plumped, if unwittingly, for the latter option. By resigning himself to the inevitable and naming Valls as his new prime minister, Hollande is now trying to reverse course.

Will he succeed? As Hollande’s minister of the interior, Valls won notoriety for his severe stance on immigration, particularly in regard to France’s Roma population. Valls ordered the dismantling of several of Roma camps and the deportation to Romania of hundreds of families, all the while declaring that the Roma have a "vocation" to return to their native lands. Many on the left denounced his policies, declaring that he was playing the very same race card that Sarkozy had with such success.

The real challenge confronting Valls, however, is not a handful of Roma camps, but resistance within his own party to economic and social reform. The make-up of his cabinet, the product of much wrangling with Hollande, resembles the pushmi-pullyu from Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Dr. Doolittle. Newly installed at the Ministry of Economy is Arnaud Montebourg, a firebrand whose philippics against the forces of globalization and pressures of the European Union place him utterly at odds with the mildly pro-business and anti-statist Valls. This inherent tension has crackled as recently as April 16, when Valls presented the details of the government’s plan to cut 50 billion euros in state spending by 2017. About 40 percent of the savings will come from reductions in social welfare programs, with the rest clawed back from various ministries and local government. Predictably, the leaders of the so-called "One Hundred" — the left wing of the Socialist Party — have denounced Valls’s plan. In another time and place, Montebourg, who has remained remarkably quiet, would have been leading these so-called "frondeurs," or rebels.

In his first official speech to the National Assembly, Valls offered a rousing declaration of love for his adopted nation, one whose republican principles allowed him to become prime minister. These same principles, of course, would also allow him to become France’s next president.

Holland cannot be comforted by the latest opinion poll, which reveals that he continues to go where no French president has gone before: Only 18 percent of the French approve of his performance in office. At the same time, nearly 60 percent have a favorable opinion of Valls. It remains to be seen what impact yesterday’s speech, which he refused to call an "austerity plan," will have on his popularity. He clearly thinks the French are ready to make such sacrifices. If Valls is right, Hollande will have invited in a formidable opponent indeed.